SHIRLEY -- Ayer Shirley Regional High School mock trial teacher Peter Gubellini started off the district's Feb. 4 School Committee meeting with an introduction to his students, who presented a portion of a mock trial for the committee.
The previous day, the mock trial team had competed in its last of three trials in real courthouses in Leominster and Concord, which were presided over by real judges or trial lawyers posing as judges. On this occasion, Gubellini played the part of the judge.
The students who showed off their lawyerly skills were freshman Jill Folger, seniors Olivia Winship and Kristen Bremer, juniors Megan Krueger and Alex Du and sophomore Tyler Landry.
A Dramatic Case
In a demonstration that appeared to grip the audience, Folger laid out the facts of the case, which involved the death of a stunt pilot at an air show. The plaintiff in the case, the pilot's estate, asserted that the defendant was at fault for the deadly accident.
The defendant, the plane's manufacturer, claimed that the accident was caused by pilot error and g-force in excess of that recommended for the aircraft. Witnesses for the defendant included a marketing director who said that she sold the Carborite Model 2 to the decedent and had warned him not to fly over six g's; another stunt pilot who would testify that he did the trick improperly; and, an aeronautics engineer, played by Du, who tested a similar plane doing the same stunt and said that there was no manufacturing defect.
Winship was the first to question Du, who played the role of defense expert Don Hamel. As Hamel, Du aptly described the g-force and g-force limits of the aircraft in question. He also described the stunt being performed by the pilot at the time of the crash, stating that he himself had performed the maneuver, known as the "Triple Lindy," 200 times.
Using two diagrams, Du described the height, average speed, and speed limit of an aircraft making the double-looped trick. He described both how the stunt should be performed, and how the pilot had erred.
Du said that on behalf of the defense, he performed the Triple Lindy in an aircraft similar to that used by the deceased pilot, but which could withstand up to eight g's. He flew the plane, equipped with an accelerometer to measure the g-force, in both the correct manner and in the same manner as the deceased.
The witness stated that he noticed that the plane was too high and much too slow when he replicated the fatal maneuvers, "so I had to accelerate to make the first turn to make the first cut, and then had to make a tight turn at 85 degrees for the second turn." The decedent's plane, which was not designed to handle more than six g's, had broken apart at that point, he testified.
His conclusion, he said, was that it was clear that the death was due to pilot error.
At this point in the "mini-trial," it seemed clear that the School Committee, having heard the expertly delivered testimony, would have sided with the defense. But that was before a fiery cross-examination by Krueger, who attempted to rip apart the witness's assertions.
Krueger revealed that the witness had never actually flown the model aircraft in question, and asserted that he was too afraid to repeat the deceased pilot's maneuvers with that plane. This, she said, even though he had the use of an accelerometer that would indicate if he was exceeding a safe speed and allow him to fly the plane without exceeding the maximum g-force recommended for the plane.
"I did not wish to die," the witness admitted.
Had the plane been manufactured with a margin of safety, he would not have even needed the accelerometer, Krueger alleged.
"I did it for accuracy, not safety," came the reply.
Krueger then insisted that weather conditions could have affected the plane. "He used 5.9 g's, so a gust of wind could have pushed it over six g's," she said.
Although the witness was not buying it, Krueger pressed on, revealing that the witness had relied on another stunt pilot's eyewitness account of the deadly flight.
"He is a witness for the defense and a known rival of (the deceased) Mr. Jacobs," she said of the other pilot.
Lastly, Krueger cited an expert witness who testified that there is "less and less of a margin of safety being built into these aircraft."
Looking stone-faced and without equivocation, Du, as the expert witness on the stand, reiterated his claim that it was pilot error that caused the pilot's death.
In closing for the defense, Bremer cited case law that supported the expert witness's testimony. She argued that the uniform commercial code for ordinary purposes for aircraft meets Federal Aviation Administration standards, and that the model aircraft in question was designed for ordinary use.
Citing case law in Massachusetts, she said that the consumer had been given warnings regarding misuse of the product, and that if the design cost of a product is increased to a point that the product will not sell, then a breach of warranty is not found.
Her last points were that the manufacturer did not breach the implied warranty, and that the pilot flew the plane "in a shoddy manner that exceeded the six g's of stress," something supported by expert witness testimony.
The Culmination of Hard Work
This was the school's 12th year of participation in the Massachusetts Bar Association's High School Mock Trial Program, which serves more than 150 high schools across the state.
The program is divided into 16 regions, and every participating high school has to be prepared to have three witnesses for each side. The teams know in advance what questions they will ask, but not what the other team will ask in cross examination. This year the team went up against Westford Academy, Concord Academy and Acton-Boxborough Regional.
Once the ASRHS mock trial students started preparing for the case in November, they met for 90 minutes each day, Monday through Thursday, and for three hours on Saturdays until February, when the actual regional competition took place.
After the demonstration concluded, Gubellini explained how hard the students had to work to prepare, from reading the case, studying case law, and coming up with strategies for both sides, to deciding which witness can say what is needed to build a case.
"They worked long and hard at this, and they worked just about perfect," he said. "It was the best case I have ever seen tried."
Although some of the participants played several parts and read from a script for the demonstration, for the actual mock trial everything is memorized, he said.
"You are guaranteed three trials, one on each side of the case, so you have to be ready to go. You don't know which part you are going to do twice.
"Jill was superb, incredible," he said of his freshman trial lawyer. "This team really transcends all four (high school) years. We have become a family in many ways," he added.